Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jewish Lessons From a Teach-In

Syracuse University Professors Zachary Braiterman recounts his experiences volunteering to provide a perspective on antisemitism at a "teach-in" organized in response to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally. It's thoughtful, nuanced, and recounts a mostly (though not entirely) positive experience. The most important thing it emphasizes is that -- to reiterate -- influence is wielded by the people in the room. If you're worried that discretely Jewish experiences of and vulnerabilities to the rising tide of far-right extremism are not being fully or fairly aired, then put yourself in a position where you're airing them.

The way that Zachary got on this panel was straight-forward: he volunteered. None of the organizers asked him about Zionism; nobody put him through an "are you a good Jew or a bad Jew" battery of questions. That isn't to say that such things never happen, but here they didn't. And when it turned out that the original date for the teach-in was to be Rosh Hashana, the fact that Zachary was in the room meant that he was well-positioned to facilitate a change of date while there was still time to do so.

Again, the experience wasn't entirely seamless. While Zachary relates that his talk resolutely did not speak about Zionism or anti-Zionism, an audience member took it upon herself to try to draw a link between Zionism and American militancy. But the fact that someone like Zachary was on the panel meant that he was the one who got to address that question. Again, what benefits we see from being in the room.

In some respects, Zachary's account reminds me of the experiences I relayed in this post (only even more positive). At the root, his experience and mine are hopeful accounts of what happens when  you insist on being in the room and actually show up. I don't pretend like every story traces such a happy arc. But it remains possible, and so I remain optimistic.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Liberal Academia Fails Again

A new study by Kyle Dodson of UC-Merced finds that, while student-student interactions have a politically polarizing effect (liberals push further left, conservatives move farther right), student-faculty interactions tend to moderate students (liberals and conservatives each move closer to the center). Obviously, something has gone awry in the liberal academy's indoctrination machine.

In all seriousness, while I'm not surprised by this finding, I do think it is worth kvelling over a little bit. Group polarization is a well-established phenomenon, and most professors are left-of-center, so one might expect that student engagement with professors would push left-wing students further left. That this doesn't happen even granted the political composition of the professoriate speaks very well of our professionalism and sense of intellectual mission.
With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. "[T]he results indicate -- in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators -- that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes," Dodson writes. "While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas -- a hallmark of the college experience -- challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions."
I'm not a fan of moderation for moderation's sake, but I'm a big fan of getting people to reassess their political priors and consider the validity of views-not-their-own. So go us!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Many People Are The Real Threat To Free Speech

Right-wing hecklers shouted down and ultimately forced the cancellation of talk by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at Whittier College. The hecklers were protesting Beccara's efforts to protect immigrants against predation by the Trump administration.

I mention this story in part because FIRE is the body who picked it up (I periodically hear people claim FIRE doesn't care about free speech violations emanating from the right, but that has not been my experience and this represents a good counterexample). I also mention it because it is a clear example of a free speech violation on a college campus. I do not mention this story to play "right-wingers are the real threat to free speech in this country" game.

The fact is, lots of people don't like free speech; mostly when it's exercised by groups they dislike. Sometimes it's right-wingers at Whittier, sometimes it's left-wingers at William & Mary (what a terrible example to pick, by the way, as the fulcrum for "protest is speech too". Yes, it is, precisely because the overwhelmingly majority of the time it does not manifest as censorial disruption as it did at W&M).

That they actually indict free speech on the regular doesn't stop them from racing off to cry "free speech" when the speaker is someone they like -- the lead heckler at Whittier, as FIRE observes, is rather flagrantly ... opportunistic, we'll say ... on this issue; one could see George Ciccariello-Maher on the other side (as the National Review rightly observes, in GCM's case not believing in academic freedom doesn't mean he doesn't deserve it, but it's fair to call things what they are).

It's perhaps not surprising that this issue -- like so many others -- has devolved into little more than partisan point scoring and desires to push a narrative. But the fact is that there are threats to free speech from all over the political spectrum. I don't tend to think college campuses should be the epicenter of this conversation, particularly when the President of the United States is talking about shutting down broadcast television networks whose coverage he dislikes. Yet even on campus, one can see plenty of offenders on both sides.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Many Voices of Silence

One of the more vexing questions raised by the recent flurry of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein was why, if "everybody knew", nobody spoke up? Why did people -- colleagues, victims, friends, press -- stay silent for so long? Is it right to blame them (all of them? some of them? which ones?) for not talking? Why?

On this subject, I'd like to share a story (I might have written about it before, though if so I can't find it) from when I was in college.

I was working a summer job at a law firm. Two of my closest friends from that summer -- also college students, both women -- worked together in the mail room; I worked by myself in another wing of the office. What that meant was that we didn't really see each other during working hours, but we did eat lunch together pretty much every day.

About a week before the end of the summer, in our daily lunch walk, one of them said she wanted to ask me something personal. She said that she thought she was being sexually harassed by her supervisor, and she wanted to know what I thought she should do about it. Should she say anything? Should she report it? The summer was about to end anyway; maybe she should just ride it out.

The "thought" part is important, because part of the conversation was her being unsure whether what was happening was sexual harassment. She seemed to be consistently talking herself into and out of her own position on the matter. She'd say things that to my mind clearly sounded like harassment, but when I'd concur in the assessment she'd second-guess herself and start redescribing the events more as if he was just sort of a generically lousy boss. Then eventually she'd reach the end of the pendulum and return back to it being harassment. She went back-and-forth in that vein for awhile, and never really settled on a conclusion.

I'm not really sure why she thought I'd have any unique insight. I wasn't any older than them, and had no particular experience in the area. The best advice I could give -- and to this day I don't know if it was good advice -- was that if she felt like it was sexual harassment she should report it, and if she felt like the guy was simply a bad supervisor she should wait out the week and leave.

Meanwhile, the second friend -- who also worked in the mailroom and to whom I periodically was turning to for clarification -- was making gestures and facial expressions to the effect of "I want absolutely no part in this." I could tell this all was bothering her as well, but she was firmly on the "don't say anything, don't do anything" side. I asked her why.

She told a story of being harassed at her middle school. And there was no "thought" there: she was being groped in the halls, people were tearing off her blouse, it was truly sickening behavior. And what did she do? She did complain. She and her parents went to the principal, told him what was going on, and demanded he put a stop to it.

The result? Nothing happened.

Well, not "nothing". The principal wasn't happy to have this thrust on her plate, and so now the administration started retaliating against her for complaining. Her entire position at the school became untenable. So she transferred to a different school -- one less convenient and less academically prestigious.

The moral she learned was "don't complain about sexual harassment." Hence, she made clear, she would neither confirm, nor deny, nor participate in any way in any conversation about any sexual harassment she or her friend may or may not have experienced in the mail room.

I'm not entirely sure how this story ended, but I don't think anybody ended up saying anything to the powers-that-be. Why not? Well, I didn't in part because I don't think either of them wanted me to, in part because I didn't know what I should say, and in part because I didn't view it as my place to speak (particularly given Friend #2's vivid description of the potential consequences for them if I talked). I imagine Friend #2 didn't talk because of the "lessons" she learned the last time she tried to fight back against harassment. And if Friend #1 didn't talk, it might have been because she was afraid the same might happen to her, or because she ultimately wasn't confident in her own credibility as a complainant, or because the end was in sight and she just wanted to put things behind her.

There are all sorts of reasons for all sorts of silence. One of my personal mentors, Martha Nussbaum -- surely one of the most powerful (in all senses of the term) women in the world today -- spoke incisively about why she never reported her sexual assault and why, even now, she continues to think it was and would continue to be useless to have done so. Silence can be complicity, and sometimes it's nothing more than that. But sometimes it is much more than that. Silence is the function of an entire network of power in which everybody feels alone, everybody feels powerless, everybody feels like they can't make a difference and that the only thing that will be gained from speaking up is hurting those who deserve it least.

Put another way, the condemnations of those who "knew" and said nothing often act as if the problem was just lack of character virtue -- if people cared more, then they wouldn't remain silent. This, to my estimation, dramatically understates the cultural forces which encourage and demand silence at every turn. The forces are not -- or are not just -- threats of reprisal. They're also bonds of trust ("you promised you wouldn't say anything if I confided"), norms of role ("it's not your place to do this for me"), and desires for lost privacy ("I just don't want this to become the center of my life"). When I hear about something that "everybody knows" but nobody says, my assumption isn't that "everybody" is a callous monster. I assume that there is something deeper going on.

When it comes to sexual assault, silence occurs in isolation, while resistance comes in groups. This is why one woman catching Weinstein bragging about sexual assault on a wiretap set up by the NYPD didn't bring Weinstein down, but many women telling a reporter (who lacks guns, or handcuffs, or prison threats) causes a cascade. Taken alone, we can't imagine how our speaking up could possibly make a difference -- it will only bring trouble. They stay silent because if they speak up:
  • They'll be threatened ("you'll never work in this town again"); and/or
  • They'll be ignored ("she's just seeking attention"); and/or
  • They'll be mocked ("what makes you so special that you think Harvey Weinstein would make eyes at you?"); and/or
  • They'll be shamed ("what did you think you were getting into, going to a meeting with him alone?"); and/or
  • They'll be discredited ("Weinstein is a public figure; if he was a predator there's no way he could've kept it a secret for so long.").
And after all that heartache? Weinstein remains untouched, but the accuser has to live with the knowledge that her accusation meant nothing.

But when enough people refuse to cooperate, that massive array of power, which felt like it was an impregnable fortress, starts to topple like dominos. The people who could end your career in Hollywood now need to rush to show they're not beholden to a tainted figure like Harvey Weinstein. The "attention" oddly dissipates because it's spread across so many victims. The mockery falls flat because it is evident that Weinstein was a serial assailant. The shame doesn't stick because so many verify how he got so many women in a vulnerable position.

But the thing is, it's difficult to make that jump from being relatively alone to relatively in a community. It requires a lot of things, and courage is certainly one of them. But again, I don't think the problem is simply one of bad hearts. It's about bad culture. And I don't expect things to change much until that culture is unwound.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"It Could've Been Worse" is the Ultimate Non-Sequitur

Israel Bonan writes on the history of Egyptian Jews and the significant oppression -- culminating in violence and expulsion -- that characterized their experience in the 20th century.

It's a reply to Eyal Sagui Bizawe, who also wrote about the 20th century history of Egyptian Jews. Bizawe's column is somewhat peculiar, since it doesn't rely deny the reality of historical oppression so much as it seems cranky that it's being talked about as a form of significant oppression. It's replete with logic like "well, yeah Jews were expelled from Egypt, but not all of them so ... why should we call it 'expulsion'?" Or "yes, there was violence directed at Jews and Jewish neighborhoods, but 'pogrom' -- that's overselling it, no?"

Basically, Bizawe seems to think it's a sort of trick, or a form of dirty pool, for Egyptian Jews to argue that a significant (not the only, but a significant) component of their recent social experience was discrimination by the Egyptian state and society. It's unfair, it's reactionary, it's harboring a closet right-wing agenda. None of these contentions are particularly persuasive, and Bonan's column does a good job refuting them. But read them both and decide for yourself.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXVI: Charlottesville

Charlottesville was a "turning point" in our national conversation about racism. By that I mean "lots of people sort of acknowledged racism still existed and was scary, and then proceeded to not alter any of their other political priors in any meaningful way such that within two weeks it was as if nothing had changed whatsoever."

But who was responsible for this hitherto unfathomable display of open white supremacy? Oh, I think you know who:
[REP. PAUL] GOSAR: Well, isn’t that interesting. Maybe that [the Charlottesville rally] was created by the Left.
VICE News: Why do you say that?  
GOSAR: Because let’s look at the person that actually started the rally. It’s come to our attention that this is a person from Occupy Wall Street that was an Obama sympathizer. So, wait a minute, be careful where you start taking these people to.  
And look at the background. You know, you know George Soros is one of those people that actually helps back these individuals. Who is he? I think he’s from Hungary. I think he was Jewish. And I think he turned in his own people to the Nazis. Better be careful where we go with those.  
VICE News: Do you think George Soros funded the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville? 
GOSAR: Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?
Interesting indeed. On behalf of the Jews, thanks, Rep. Gosar, and thanks to the Republicans of Arizona's 4th congressional district for electing him!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The New Trump Administration Push To Blow Up Energy Markets

David Roberts has a great post on efforts by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to essentially blow up the wholesale energy market in a naked effort to protect coal (and, to a lesser extent, nuclear) power plants from free competition. Basically, he proposed a new rule that would guarantee coal and nuclear power plants a positive return on their investments, regardless of whether their power capacity was used or even is economical. Whereas other power plants (ranging from wind to natural gas) make money based on their ability to compete effectively in the marketplace, a few preferred operators would get their profits guaranteed.

Nominally, this is because they uniquely contribute to grid "resilience" by being a source of power able to ramp up quickly in the event of a major disruption (like, say, a major weather event). The problem (well, the short version of the problem) is that all the relevant studies -- including those conducted by the DOE under the supervision of Secretary Perry in the hopes that they'd confirm his political preferences -- conclude that coal and nuclear power don't actually improve grid resilience, and that, in fact, the grid is generally quite reliable and resilient right now (and only improving). So the only real upshot is to serve as a massive intrusion on the market in favor of uneconomical coal power.* It's thus no surprise that one Republican former FERC commissioner described it as "the antithesis of good economics," or that simply said it would "blow the market up."

The whole article is worth your read, both as an introduction to how energy markets work (Roberts is great at explaining for a lay audience) and as an entry in the infinite-series of "Republicans don't actually care about market competition.

After laying out a litany of obstacles to passing the rule -- ranging from wall-to-wall opposition in the energy sector (outside of coal/nuke lobbyists) to severe time pressures to a complete lack of legal or policy justification necessary under the relevant statutes, Roberts concludes by saying the future of this proposal depends "on just how hackish and partisan FERC is willing to get." In other words, hold on tight.**

* As Roberts notes, while nuclear power is in a somewhat different boat from coal, this rule is also terrible policy as applied to supporting nukes.

** FERC is actually normally a relatively well-run agency, but at the moment it is controlled by Trump partisans who are, shall we say, not typically concerned with abiding by standards of technical expertise. So we'll see.